How the NCAA Basketball Cartel Seized Its Power

The college tournament was once run by a different organization—before a scandal cleared the way for new association to take control.


It's fitting that the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off during the week of St. Patrick's Day, because it all began with Irish. That's Edward S. "Ned" Irish, who was born in 1905 in upstate New York and was one of the three or four most important men in the history of basketball.

Irish was a part-time basketball writer, part-time promoter, and full-time hustler. The way I heard his story, from two great veteran sportswriters, Leonard Koppett and Vic Ziegel, Irish tried, with limited success, to cover college basketball games for a New York daily in the late 1930s. It's hard to understand today, but the newspapers didn't appreciate that there was a potentially large audience who were interested in basketball, and the colleges didn't understand the wisdom of letting a sportswriter in for free to write about their teams. Repeatedly snubbed, he resorted to sneaking into arenas to see the games. On one legendary occasion, finding the promoters were hip to him and all the doors were locked, he broke a window in the athletic department and slipped through it, ripping his best suit pants in the process.

It took him a few years, but Irish was finally able to get the point across to New York's biggest basketball powers: Print coverage might actually help their attendance. If Ned Irish wasn't the father of New York basketball, he was at least the father of New York basketball writers.

By 1930, through a combination of brains, guts, and blarney, he organized the first postseason college basketball competition—the National Invitational Tournament. For 20-odd years, the NIT ruled—or perhaps "crowned" would be a better term, since it capped the college basketball season.

But looming on the horizon was the evil beast, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA established their tournament the year after the NIT began, and until the early 1950s it was second to Ned Irish's baby in both prize money and prestige. The reason wasn't difficult to figure. The NIT could offer something that the NCAA couldn't: a trip to New York.

Afraid to challenge the NIT on its turf, the NCAA held its tournament somewhere west of the Hudson River, out in the suburbs. But New York guaranteed the invitees higher ticket sales and also meant more newspaper coverage. There was no way the NCAA could compete—at least not fairly.

Under Irish's home rule, New York and Madison Square Garden became the Mecca of college basketball, and by 1946 NIT games were drawing an amazing average of nearly 18,200 fans a game. This was more fans than most baseball teams--including all three New York teams—were pulling in.

But Irish made a mistake. In his arrogance, he pretended not to know that New York was also the Mecca for professional gamblers and did nothing to curtail their activities in and around the Garden. The luck of the Irish turned dramatically bad in 1951 with a game-fixing scandal that rocked college basketball. New York District Attorney Frank Hogan announced that six colleges, four of them in New York, and more than 30 players were involved.

Most of the players were found guilty of fixing games while a handful were simply "shaving" points to lose (or winning by less than the oddsmakers had determined they were supposed to win by). Hogan later told reporters that the scandal was the result of "the blatant commercialism which had permeated college basketball." One wonders what the District Attorney might have thought of college basketball if he had lived another 40 years.

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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